Harrisburg can be a contrary place and, during my years here, I’ve seen little agreement on anything.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse’s decision to blackball PennLive/The Patriot-News has not been received well by the public, at least not among the people I know and have spoken with, many of whom have generally supported his policies.
In my conversations with him, Papenfuse has cited several reasons for his antipathy to Harrisburg’s “newspaper of record.” He believes that PennLive engages in sensationalism, that its editors unfairly target him and that the comment section of the website is rife with daily debasements such as childish name-calling, rumormongering and outright lies.
Basically, he believes that PennLive will do almost anything to generate page views, which, with its “digital first” approach to journalism, is how it tries to make money. In an interview yesterday with Dave Marcheskie of abc27 News, Papenfuse said that PennLive was no longer a legitimate news outlet and compared it to the website Gawker, whose tagline is “today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.”
Many people in the Harrisburg area would agree with at least some of these criticisms. Years ago, when I arrived here, three negatives really struck me: the racial divide, the division between city and suburb and a shared dislike of the Patriot-News, a feeling that seems to have only grown with its transition from a traditional daily newspaper to a digital news outlet.
However, like it or not, PennLive remains this area’s predominant source of news. Despite multiple rounds of layoffs in recent years, PennLive is still unmatched in terms of editorial budget and staff resources. No other media can compete. Not the TV news, not volunteer watchdogs and not TheBurg, which, for all of our progress, has a microscopic budget and staff compared to PennLive. You can argue with how PennLive deploys its substantial resources, but it does dedicate a reporter to Harrisburg, where news is never lacking.
Since Papenfuse decided to ban PennLive, people have speculated what this says about his temperament or means for his re-election prospects. Frankly, those issues concern me less than what it means for an informed citizenry. Yes, a lot of content on PennLive is contrived fluff, engineered to lure people into clicking on this or that. Most Harrisburg stories, though, contain useful and important information as reported by Christine Vendel, who is thorough, fair-minded and exceedingly professional. Her quality of information suffers without input from the mayor, who, in our form of local government, is the single most important source for facts, details, priorities and commentary.
Papenfuse has told me that he believes he’s gone out of his way to accommodate reporters and, in fact, I’ve found him to be quite accessible. I ask him to continue this commitment to openness and availability. In this city, the mayor has an extremely important public role to play, and I don’t believe he can fulfill it without engaging with PennLive’s city reporter. Yes, he may feel slighted, insulted and mistreated; he may believe that PennLive has debased itself with tabloid-style journalism. However, he is the mayor of Harrisburg, and, as such, has a responsibility to keep the people informed, even if he doesn’t like where their news is coming from.
Note: After this blog was posted, Mayor Eric Papenfuse responded as follows:
“An informed citizenry is not well served by the gossip-mongering hate speech that PennLive traffics in with its promotion of anonymous commentary. This is the antithesis of what is good for democracy, as it drives people further apart. I am committed to communicating with the public and believe I can do so effectively without engaging a clicks-for-cash business model that has little interest in the truth or the betterment of our civic culture in Harrisburg.”